Insomnia and why our society can not settle down

We live in an amped up, caffeine fueled world with some twisted concepts. For example, commonly people get tired in the middle of the afternoon. So what do we do? Get a coffee or an energy and “power through”. What does the majority of Europe do? Take down time in the afternoon for a nap and then go back to the office. Why do we make fun of this when we get tired too? Our bodies have sent us a message, I am tired and I need to sleep. But we do not listen. Instead we ignore it and consume food to drink to help push our bodies past the tiredness. We do not nap. We make fun of people who do nap. Now I am talking nap, a period of sleep less than one hour in duration that recharges us. I am not talking about laying down and not getting up for three hours. That my friend is exhaustion catching up with us. And face it, it happens. A lot. Usually on the weekends where we already sleep late to “make up” for the sleep we did not get the other five days of the week. Guess what? It does not work. Make up sleep just does not work. We can not physically make up for inappropriate and insufficient sleep during the week by sleeping ten hours on two nights. Sleep does not work like that. Appropriate sleep is required all seven nights of the week.

Approximately eight hours each night is needed for an adult. We need to be asleep by at least 11pm, 10pm is better. In acupuncture theory, certain organs need to be at rest at certain times of the night. They regenerate during that time. If that sounds like something out of Star Trek, fine. It is true. This is not going to be a crash course in acupuncture theory. So I am going to relay pieces of theory within this article with what I hope is sufficient information of functionality to make this understandable. For instance the gall bladder organ needs to rest and regenerate during the hours of 11pm and 1am. The gall bladder in acupuncture theory is part of a team responsible for decision making and planning. Can you imagine having to make important decisions and plan something, anything without sufficient sleep? I want you to imagine making decisions on a multi-million dollar project with only a couple of hours of sleep and no access to caffeine. We can not do it properly. We describe those days as treading through molasses, everything is slow and somewhat painful. This is what happens because our gall bladder was up watching the late late show instead of peacefully asleep, getting its needed down time. 

I am asking you, my reader, why does our world not want to slow down and listen to its body? We claim to be active in fitness clubs and all sorts of cultural activities. We feed ourselves organic foods and buy free trade everything. We support countless environmentally sound concerns. Yet, the number one thing the human body needs to succeed is ignored and belittled and treated as something that we can “get around”.

Sleep is so simple. We have been sleeping since we stepped out of the primordial swamp. And for those of us who can not sleep, sleep is elusive; sleep becomes an enemy. Not everyone who suffers from insomnia fits the over amped, fast paced lifestyle. That is a stereotype that unfortunately is all to real in this world. For those of us who buy the sound machines; get blackout curtains; stop caffeine intake; and alter diets to attain the elusive sleep fairy; something is still missing.

Part of the ability to sleep is being grounded. This allows the body, mind, and spirit to settle and be secure in sleeping. Without being grounded our mind wanders around and thinks about everything from mundane tasks that were missed to worry about work related issue. Without being grounded our bodies tend to fidget and flail under the covers, issues like restless leg syndrome can often be traced back to this. And our spirit becomes defeated and instead of falling into a relaxing dream filled sleep, we experience nightmares and interrupted sleep.

During a recent session with someone suffering from sufficient lack of sleep, the person reported that they could get to sleep but not stay asleep. During the examination I noted a few things that ring the bell as it were. (Note: I always speak in generalities when I use a real life instance. Never is patient confidentiality compromised.) They were working multiple jobs, one of which often required late nights or shifting hours. They were not drinking sufficient water and were eating lots of small meals, more like snacks because they did not have sufficient time to sit down and calmly eat even one meal during the day. Within one session I was able to help them get to sleep and stay asleep. They also got counseling on why certain life choices were being detrimental to sleep. They understood the obvious one related work hours and had already made changes to that aspect of their life. It is almost impossible to relate how so many life choices alter our ability to relax and enter a peaceful and restful night’s sleep. But this is what I and so many of my colleagues do on a daily basis. We sit and talk with our patients about what they do each day. We relay how certain foods, drinks, habits, and activities undermine the ability to relax. And often it is not simply about removing things but adding things in to the daily habit that will bring about healthy sleep. Habits like drinking water; sitting down to dinner; and even 30 minutes of meditation or quiet time make a huge impact in moving away from the GO GO GO world and settling into a more even paced world where we can sleep.

Breathing Space

People talk about breathing space all the time. They need a little space to make a decision. They need a little space when something traumatic happens.

This breathing space is needful in life. It gives solitude and quiet for the body, mind, and heart to work.

Birds space themselves out at the appropriate and needful interval on a telephone wire. Sometimes however we humans forget and we keep crowding in and crowding in when simply there is not enough space.

Breathing space is needed physically within ourselves also. Without it our lungs do not expand properly. We need free and easy breathing. And sometimes the hardest thing to do when in pain is to take deep, smooth breaths. It is a very “in the present moment” thing to do. To mindful breathe in. Feel your chest expand. Feel the breath go deep and push out the stomach muscles. Feel the breath all the way down to the navel.

The act of mindfully breathing in, especially during a time of pain, is very helpful. I encourage my patients to do so. It gives the space, that moment of clarity and calm. With slow, deep, full breaths one can grow that moment of calm.

The easiest meditation was taught to me as a prayer by a beloved Jesuit priest from my childhood, Father Frank Ernst. He had us children sit as quietly as possible and take a deep breath in and on the exhale gently and without force let the word Jesus come forth. This is very similar to the Om chant. It is an easy sound. And because of its roundedness, requires a fullness that produces openness in the chest. A breath prayer or chanting is provides the focus for the breath. We do not need to add sound. It is the act of focusing on the breath that is important.

Breath focus is used in meditation. Forget about gazing a lotus leaf or the vivid hues of the sunrise. Air is always within us and around us. To concentrate as we take a long, slow, deep breath that pushes down to the naval and to follow it mindfully out so that all the air is exhaled out is the best meditative practice I can do. I encourage you to do it. It requires no special equipment or place.

Close your eyes or let them rest downcast and not focused on anything. Take a breath in through your nose. Pull it down as far as you can. Early on you may only feel your upper chest expand. Exhale slowly. Feel your chest deflate. Take your next breath and mindfully expand your stomach to accommodate the space in your body instead of your chest. As you exhale your stomach muscles press inward and upward. The breath feels bigger. Continue.

Many people start their day with a few moments of mindful breathing. It is energizing and easy. Many also conclude their day the same way. It is a good practice to use and spreads throughout our lives so that instead of using it moments of panic, we use it in life and life is easier with mindful breathing.